Since the demise of Charlotte Rep, theater festivals have been a scarce commodity in the capital of banking, NASCAR, and Chiquita Banana. But 2012 is bringing us a hearty harvest. The bumper crop began with a weeklong Queen's Fab Fest at Spirit Square that closed on Saturday night. A more Rep-like festival is yet to come later this summer when Actor's Theatre of Charlotte brings nuVoices for a nuGeneration to Stonewall Street on August 5-12.
Plowing through 288 submissions, a team of dramaturges has selected a Final Four for the Actor's Theatre festival. Playwrights will be flown in to witness the reading-stage performances, hone their scripts, and participate in post-show talkbacks. Audiences, judges, and ATC staff will then combine to choose a Festival Favorite – giving the winning playwright a fully-staged production after the 2013 nuVoices Festival. It's a pattern of evolution that Rep demonstrated with Wendy Hammond's Ghostman, Laddy Sartin's Catfish Moon, and — most notoriously — Dorothy Velasco's Miracle at Graceland. But the upfront promise of a world premiere is a new wrinkle for nuVoices.
Queen's Fab Fest, on the other hand, was a whole new breed, breaking the mold as soon as Queen City Theatre Company brought it back. The festival started theatrically enough with a concert version of William Finn and James Lapine's Falsettos at McGlohon Theatre on June 23. Falsettos centers around the extended family that husband and wife Marvin and Trina haphazardly create after their divorce, including family psychiatrist Mendel, who marries Trina, and Marvin's gay lover Whizzer, who contracts AIDS.
The family coalesces memorably in Act 2 as they celebrate the bar mitzvah of Marvin and Trina's son Jason — at Whizzer's hospital bedside. Yes, Falsettos was pretty daring and powerful stuff when Rep presented it 19 years ago — and woefully relevant in 2012 in the land of Amendment One. With Brianna Smith as Trina opposite artistic director Glenn T. Griffin starring as Marvin — and Ashby Blakely absolutely definitive as Mendel — the Queen City version held its own quite nicely against the 1993 Show of the Year.
Then Fab Fest took a sudden swerve towards drag queen cabaret, bringing us the fabulous Coco Peru last Wednesday and something named Pandora Boxx the following night. Coco's newest, There Comes a Time, featured tasty anecdotes about delivering a eulogy at Bea Arthur's funeral, turning down a starring role in Rent, and bringing a meatball parmesan hero to a dying AIDS victim. Close your eyes and Coco's comedy delivery often sounds very close to Bea Arthur's outraged emphases, but the singing style is smoother, more feminine. Singing, storytelling, and dumping on Charlotte were all artfully mixed in Coco's script.
Pandora, on the other hand, has yet to stumble upon the concept of a script. Exalted to cable stardom on RuPaul's Drag Race, Pandora came onstage grumbling about how funny the warm-up act had been, cooked up by Matt Kenyon and Jeremy Shane. After a promising opening – or must "My Vagina Is 8 Miles Wide" be classified as a colossal opening? – Pandora's box proved to be fairly empty, often inarticulate. The anti-woman, anti-lesbian strain in the act surprised me, most notably when Pan described the pink stuff he was drinking as "period in a glass."
Things improved the next night with Twisted Broadway, where gay and straight performers gathered to sing songs originally written for the opposite gender. Griffin gushed bliss singing "I Enjoy Being a Girl," Cynthia Farbman crossed over with "Bring Him Home" from Les Miz, Dennis Delamar had a Liza moment in "Maybe This Time," and Kristian Wedowlowski climaxed the show with a "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" hot flash.
Covering openings at CP and CAST, I missed what must have been a rollicking Wizard of Oz Sing-Along last Saturday night in the time-honored Rocky Horror spirit. What Queen City has in store for Fab Fest 2 is obviously unpredictable, but this year's festival fare has already whetted my appetite for nuVoices and 2013.